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This chat has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Butrymowicz: Hello everyone and welcome to Hechinger’s first ever chat! We’ll be doing these periodically when there is news that our team wants to discuss. Before we get started, because as a journalist I believe in proper attribution, I have to give credit to the folks at FiveThirtyEight for this format.

Today, we’re going to be talking about President Trump’s proposed budget blueprint. We’re not political reporters, so we won’t discuss the odds of any piece of it passing, but instead will focus on what the impact would be on students and what clues it gives us about the Trump administration’s education agenda going forward. Trump’s proposal would cut funding for the Department of Education by $9 billion, eliminating or curtailing a number of programs. At the same time, the budget calls for $1.4 billion to expand school choice. There’s a lot to explore here, but let’s start with an open question: What do you think is the most significant aspect of this proposed budget?

Lillian Mongeau: There is nothing mentioned in the Trump budget about early education. There was no mention of the preschool grants started under President Obama. And there was no mention of Head Start, a federal preschool program for children in poverty. Head Start is run by the Department of Health and Human Services, which would be cut by 17 percent.

Nichole Dobo: The singular focus on one topic: school choice. That sets it apart, I think, from other recent agendas. DeVos has focused on this and reinforced it in all of her public appearances so far. And Monday DeVos praised virtual schools as a choice method, despite evidence that virtual (online only) schools do not seem to improve test scores or graduation rates — especially for the neediest children.

The decision to double down on virtual school was especially stunning because the Trump budget director said there was no proof that feeding hungry kids helps them. If they want proof for feeding kids, it would logically follow that they want proof that choice works, right?

Sarah: The focus on school choice, at the expense of other programs, also strikes me as particularly noteworthy. It’s also probably worth pointing out that a lack of evidence is cited as a reason for cutting programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

Lillian: Yes. And there will be an additional $1.4 billion added for school choice programs, That’s a lot of money.

Jackie Mader: I agree, Nickie. At the same time, I think it’s notable that Title II, Part A funding, or the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, is on the chopping block. The budget says this program “is poorly targeted and spread thinly across thousands of districts with scant evidence of impact.” Districts have used these funds for professional development and other efforts to recruit teachers and  improve teacher quality.

So it seems like the Trump administration is backing away from teacher quality and preschool, which were big pushes during Obama’s presidency, as Lillian pointed out.

Meredith Kolodner: In some cases, the budget proposal could take away choice, at least for low-income families. I was really struck by the cuts to after school programs. And given Trump’s rural voter base, it’s a curious choice on his part. Twenty-five percent of rural children live in poverty, and parents of some 3 million kids say they wish they could afford or get to after school programs — that’s before the cuts he proposes.

Jackie: Exactly, Meredith. Isn’t that why the senators from Maine and Alaska didn’t vote to confirm Betsy DeVos? They said that in rural states, they don’t necessarily have choice and NEED that investment in public schools

Lillian: When I read about cutting the 21st Century Learning Program cuts I was reminded of this tiny K-12 school on an American Indian Reservation in Montana that I visited last winter. The school leaders were so proud of their new after school program, which included field trips for children to learn about the tribe’s heritage, a book club, a sewing club, and several other after school groups. In rural areas like theirs with few options for activities to keep kids occupied, funding for after school programs can be a real boon.

Nichole: Chiefs for Change, a pro-reform group that would typically be on the same side as a Republican agenda, issued a statement about the budget that, in part, was critical of some of the cuts. It’s telling that they would do so. They were happy with the school choice focus, and said so, but they also added this:

“However, stronger public school choice options is but one of many opportunities ESSA makes possible. The “skinny” budget also strips states and districts of flexibilities available under ESSA before they can ever be used, limiting the ability of Chiefs to affect meaningful change that will improve teaching and learning and lead to dramatic progress in academic outcomes for all kids. As Congress considers the Trump Administration’s proposal, we urge them to maintain funding in critical areas, like Title II and the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Fund, to ensure states and districts are able to take advantage of every opportunity under ESSA to the fullest extent possible, rather than cutting them off from these tools at the very moment they need them most.”

Sarah: This is a pretty big departure in many ways from what we saw under Obama. But is anything in this budget surprising to us?

Lillian: Well it’s surprising that they are backing away from supports for rural schools, as Jackie pointed out. Rural voters came out big for Trump. It seems counter-intuitive that his budget would defund programs aimed at them.

Nichole: I was surprised about the potential cuts to work-study grants. If that happens it will be unpopular with working-class voters, to say the least.

Meredith: It’s interesting to me that he didn’t go after Pell grants directly, more of a back door whack at college access for low-income students. Like the cuts to Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. If you qualify for Pell and it doesn’t cover tuition, you can get up to $4k per year. Given that average in-state public college tuition is close to $10,000, that’s a lot of people who won’t get as much as they would have.

The thing about work-study grants is that they are given out in a way that often gives elite schools more funding. So it will be interesting to see if he actually reforms that or just cuts it.

Lillian: To what Nickie said about work study: Yes, and also unpopular to many middle class voters. Plenty of work-study students have some help from parents on tuition, but still have other costs, like books and transportation, they need to cover alone.

Jackie: I keep coming back to the rural schools. I’ve spent so many years reporting in Mississippi, which went for Trump, but more than 50 percent of kids in Mississippi attend rural schools and the state has one of the highest child poverty rates. A lot of these proposals will negatively impact – or just won’t apply to – kids there.

Lillian: Jackie, yes. That will be true for much of the rural West too, where I’ve been reporting a lot lately.

Nichole: And after the big show Trump made meeting with HBCU leaders it was surprising to see that he didn’t follow through and offer more money for these schools. What is the strategy with that big meeting followed by no money? That brings me to a larger question: Is there a coherent strategy beyond “more school choice” in this budget? Or perhaps that is the intended message?

And, Sarah, am I stealing your role as moderator by posing a question?

Sarah: Kind of, but I like the question so I’ll allow it.

Nichole: I won’t commandeer the rest of the convo. I promise.

Sarah: My answer, though, is that I think it remains to be seen. I have a lot of questions I want answered about that $1.4 billion.

Meredith: It’s hard to get reporters not to ask questions. Stay the course, Sarah.

Lillian: You know, Nickie, that reminds me of another question I had about this budget, which goes to strategy… The budget says there will be $68 million for charter schools. But what does that mean? Most charter schools are authorized by towns, counties or states. Is the federal government going to start direct-funding charter schools?

Jackie: Ooh interesting.

Sarah: Or it could be an increase in federal grants that go to charters? There’s a federal program for the “Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools.” This is something that charter folks I talked to this summer were concerned might be cut in the coming years. Maybe they don’t have to worry any more.

Nichole: I have a hunch that regular folks who do not carefully follow federal budgets are going to react poorly if there are cutbacks at their local schools as a result of this budget. These new schools are not going to open overnight. What happens in the meantime?

Meredith: To Nickie’s point on HBCUs, a lot of students protested their presidents going to that meeting with Trump. Their response was that HBCUs might have suffered cuts if they hadn’t. Pell is super important for HBCUs — they enroll a disproportionately high number of Pell-eligible students.

Sarah: We’ve covered all the major pieces of the proposal, as I see it. Any final thoughts about what you’ll be watching for going forward?

Lillian: I also think it’s interesting that IDEA, funding for students with learning and physical disabilities, was flat-funded. I’d guess that was unexpected by critics. (Keeping in mind that flat-funding feels like a win to many educators in the current environment.)

Meredith: I’d be looking for which Congressional Republicans chime in to protect the things that are particularly important to their districts, kind of like what’s happening with health care right now.

Nichole: Yes. I think Meredith is right. They will have to face constituents who want to know why kids aren’t getting work-study grants or after school programs are evaporating.

Lillian: Hmm, yes. I wonder what they’ll be aiming to save?

Jackie: I agree, Meredith. People were so outspoken during DeVos’ confirmation, so I feel like there is a lot of momentum now when it comes to the public and their engagement in education. I’m interested to hear what people will stand up for or fight for.

Sarah: That likely really helped with IDEA funding, as Lillian mentioned.

Nichole: I wonder if they don’t intend really to cut all these things. If they put out a list of big cuts, but then they only do a medium cut, it has the effect of making people feel like they won.

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